Cocktail Party Physics

Cocktail Party Physics

Physics With a Twist

Jeepers, Creepers: What Does Sexual Harassment Look Like?


I have been largely silent publicly about the events of the past week that ended with the resignation of our blogs editor, Bora Zivkovic, mostly because (a) I was waiting for all the facts to come in and trying to process those facts in the throes of considerable cognitive dissonance, and (b) others have addressed so clearly and eloquently the many knotty issues I would have raised. Honestly, I'm suffering from metaphorical PTSD (Note: this is not meant to diminish PTSD; it accurately reflects my shellshocked emotional state): Bora is a longstanding friend and colleague. I have spent the last week, like many others, grieving for what our small community has lost, and what the three young women who came forward have suffered. Each subsequent revelation was like a hard punch to the gut. Monica, Hannah, Kathleen -- I'm so sorry. I truly had no idea.

And yes, I grieve for Bora himself, and his wife, Catherine, although I cannot condone his behavior, or deny the damage this has wrought. I cannot place concern for his well-being above that of the young women he has harmed through his actions. But human beings are complex, a mass of contradictions, and we are all, at various times, laid flat by our own frailty. His fall was just more precipitous than most, and because of his substantial influence, the fallout and collateral damage were more severe. As Ashutosh Jogalekar phrased it,

We can applaud the substance of Bora’s foundational contributions to the rise of science blogging even as we continue to denounce his actions. This episode is a reminder that human beings are flawed and that the same person can reach both the heights of achievement and the depths of failure.

Ashutosh is a thoughtful man, and he chose his words carefully, with plenty of caveats. But there was one phrase elsewhere in his post that bothered me, because it is one that I've heard echoed in comments all over the Web: that "in none of the three cases did Bora’s behavior descend into overt sexual or physical harassment." It's the same point Hannah Waters made in her post when she talked about "not-quite-harassment," and when Monica Byrne confessed that at first, she wasn't entirely sure what happened to her constituted "real" harassment.

I wish I didn't feel compelled to talk about this. I just want to explore through my writing all the cool science and culture stuff out there and share my enthusiasm with others, augmented with the occasional funny video. But clearly we need to talk about what sexual harassment looks like, because it's not always black-and-white, and no two cases are exactly alike. I would argue that the insidiousness of those borderline gray areas can sometimes be more damaging, in the long run, than the blatantly obvious cases -- particularly for fields that wish to attract and promote more women within their ranks. An accumulation of incessant little things can gradually create an intolerable environment, and sexual harassment is a often a significant part of that. (Cf. the "chilly climate.") It's especially impactful when it happens early in one's career. As this post noted: "Events at the beginning of your career timeline are, by definition, formative." So it's important that we openly acknowledge when these kinds of things happen, and act swiftly to address them.

Like pretty much every woman out there, I am no stranger to harassment. It's just part of what a friend recently described as the persistent "background noise" of being a Woman in Public: the whistles and catcalls, the random slurping sounds, the public masturbators and the gropers, the chatty men next to you on the subway who keep trying to make "friendly" conversation when you just want to be left alone to read your book, the exhortations to "smile, sweetheart," and, when you protest, the defensive insistence that they were just "being friendly, geez, what a bitch." It's a daily barrage, and frankly, it gets exhausting. (One of the loveliest things about married middle age is that one is increasingly invisible as a sexual target -- and I mean that sincerely.)

Matters become more complicated when it's someone you know in a professional or even a semi-professional setting, especially if there is an imbalance of respective power. I'm going to describe two separate case studies from my own misspent youth to illustrate how fuzzy the lines can be. Which would you consider overt sexual harassment? And which do you think had the greater impact on me and my future professional development?

Case #1:

I was just 22, quiet, painfully shy, and achingly naive, working as a copy editor at a publishing company. One of the male senior staff offered to buy me a friendly drink after work, just to welcome me to the fold. I thought it was a little weird but didn't want to appear impolite when I was just starting a new job, plus I didn't know many people yet, so I agreed. More than 20 years later, I still vividly recall the sudden chill when the joke he was telling unexpectedly turned sexually explicit. Very explicit, deliberately so. Leering slightly, he stared intently in my eyes as he savored every naughty detail, oblivious to my attempts to avert his gaze, my crossed arms, my nervous chuckle as I sought escape. It wasn't remotely sexy or erotic; he sounded like a horny 12-year-old sniggering over Daddy's old Hustler rags.

I told him that I needed to get home, insisted on paying for my own drink because I didn't want to feel obligated in any way to this man. He remained oblivious, taking my elbow as we walked down the street, leaning close and murmuring that it was too bad he'd given up his apartment in the city because then we could have gone there for the night. I was stunned. Did he honestly think he had a snowball's chance in hell of getting me into bed? Had he really not noticed my growing discomfort, my stiff posture, my instinctive pulling away, my incredulous expression at the very idea of sleeping with him?

Yes. He did. And no. He hadn't. I was just a prop in his personal fetishized sexual fantasy, in which he was the erudite, sophisticated sex god offering to initiate the pretty ingenue into the delights of carnal pleasure. My wishes were irrelevant, my boundaries disregarded; he didn't see "me" at all.

His self-delusion reached new heights when he stopped by my cubicle a couple of days later and condescendingly informed me that he felt we should really just be friends, that he was actually seeing someone. He hoped he hadn't led me on and that I could "get over" him and move on with my life. I just stared at him with a "WTF?" expression and finally shrugged and said sure, no problem. He seemed a bit taken aback by my nonchalance; I'm sure he convinced himself I was frigid. Clearly any woman who found him repulsive had to be frigid. It was my first encounter with the manipulative, "If you weren't such a prude, you wouldn't find this offensive" line such men routinely feed their targets. It wouldn't be my last.

This man was senior to me, but he was not my direct superior and he mostly left me alone once he'd determined I wasn't an easy mark, apart from occasionally brushing against me in the hall (his office was near my cubicle) and giving a knowing smirk. No harm, no foul. Men will be men, right? It's not like we all have a god-given right to never feel socially uncomfortable. But it poisoned my experience on the job. I was wary of socializing with co-workers after-hours, even in groups, unless my one trusted friend (who remains one of my best friends) was present. I largely kept to myself, and leapt at the first new employment opportunity that came my way. Later, I heard through the grapevine that he'd been cited for sexual harassment; apparently he'd been sending anonymous dirty emails regularly over the company servers to a female colleague, who tracked him down and reported the abuse. I have no idea if he kept his job.

Case #2:

I was working at a different company, a little older, not much wiser. At an official company dinner, I found myself seated next to a 60-ish high-ranking administrator -- let's call him X -- who became progressively inebriated. When I felt his hand slip onto my thigh under the table, gently squeeze and start to slide upward, I quickly stood up and said I needed a refill from the bar. And I stayed in the bar for the rest of the evening, enduring the ribbing of several co-workers, who guessed why I had left my seat. The man had a reputation as an incorrigible horndog.

At first I had no intention of reporting him. I'd gotten a bit more jaded by then, intent on playing the role of Post-Feminist Free Spirit. (Spoiler alert: it really didn't suit me.) A spot of drunken groping paled in comparison to the PR rep who insisted on meeting at his home office to discuss the freelance article I was writing. That guy answered the door wearing nothing but a bathrobe, and promptly laid down on the oversized sofa, suggesting that if I wanted access to his client, perhaps I could "massage" his legs -- especially the upper inner thigh region. The sight of those flabby white thighs and barely-visible testicles peeking through the robe's folds haunted me for days. (You're welcome for that visual. Share my pain!) And no -- I never wrote that article. I guess I just didn't "want it enough" to pay that high a price.

I figured I just had to avoid X from now on. Except the ribbing from co-workers continued for the next couple of days, with people teasing that I was the "future Mrs. X" -- someone even pasted a doctored photo on my computer monitor, with my face and X's imposed on a stock wedding pose. Finally, embarrassed and fed up with the breezy acceptance of X's lecherous behavior more than the behavior itself, I marched into Human Resources and said I wanted to lodge a formal complaint. I was lucky: the woman seated on the other side of X that night had witnessed the whole thing -- and she just happened to be the head of HR.

X denied it when she first confronted him, but she countered, "I was there. I saw you." And he caved. With his guilt established, she asked what I wanted to be done about it. Honestly? I just wanted it to go away. I didn't even want an apology. Ultimately I asked that he get a stern talking-to about how poorly his behavior reflected on the company and how he should probably regulate his drinking at future company events. Despite this uncomfortable incident, I enjoyed my employment there. It was easy to avoid X, given the company's size and his seniority. Looking back, did I make the right choice? I don't know. I'd like to think that black mark on his personnel record chastened him somewhat, but it's just as likely that he continued to cheerfully get drunk and grope young women all the way until retirement.

Case #2 is a fairly straightforward example of mild sexual harassment, and there is comfort in that kind of clarity. It happened in a professional work environment and -- crucially -- when I spoke up, someone believed me, and appropriate action was taken, which, sadly, is not always the case. (Having a witness didn't hurt.) So that work environment, to me, was a safe space, and the incident didn't really prey on my psyche.

Case #1 falls into that nebulous gray area; it happened while socializing outside of the office. I doubt the HR department of that company would have been able to do anything even if I'd reported it. It was really just your standard creeper scenario, apart from the work connection and the close proximity of our work spaces. Had I been a little older, not so wet behind the ears -- heck, had his office just been on another floor so I could easily avoid him -- I could have shrugged it off more easily. Instead, I quit my job, even though I had been aiming for a career in publishing. And as it turned out, the man was a sexual harasser with a particular fetish for talking dirty to women he worked with; his behavior toward me was insignificant on its own, but was part of a broader pattern.

I don't share this because I'm psychologically scarred. The incidents were mild and happened so long ago, I wouldn't even have thought about them had last week's drama not jogged my memory. Things turned out pretty okay for me. I did end up in publishing, eventually -- I just took a more circuitous route and ended up on the authorial end of the spectrum. But that doesn't excuse the behavior of those men.

Every woman of my acquaintance has multiple stories like this -- yes, even in the world of science writing. Over time, you develop a thick skin and learn to take these things in stride. You shrug wearily and figure this is just how things are, comparing harassment war stories with your female colleagues over drinks, ridiculing the pathetic creatures because what can you do except laugh about it ruefully? We watch each other’s backs and run interference when necessary. We're taught to stay silent, and we don’t fancy the inevitable attacks on our credibility and character that ensue when we violate this unspoken social compact. Just ask Monica, Hannah, and Kathleen Raven, all of whom offered very credible accounts, confirmed by the man in question, and were still sharply criticized for daring to speak up. (“Why didn’t they do X? Why did they do Y? He never harassed me, so clearly those women are lying.”) We get tired of arguing and trying to convince the nitpicking skeptics that yes, what happened to us really did constitute harassment and no, we didn’t "misunderstand" -- and we certainly didn't “ask for it.” So we rarely name names publicly, on the record (but we know who you are!), and we rarely stop to question whether it has to be this way.

But this system we've developed also supports the perpetrators and impedes change, as Alice Bell pointed out:

We should be able to give a lecture without a colleague eyeing-up our legs. We should be able to bend down and tie our bloody shoelace on campus without someone making a comment about our bum. The gateways to particular people, jobs, ideas and spaces should not be guarded by questions of whether or not we are willing to entertain the idea of screwing someone in a position of power. We should be able to talk about stuff like this and call it out without being made to feel like some sort of sour killjoy.

This problem is much bigger than Bora Zivkovic, extending far beyond the science blogosphere. It's everywhere. His voluntary resignation was the right the thing to do: he gets points for (finally) copping to his guilt and sparing the community he helped build further heartbreak and strife – shades of the idealism and generosity that made the “Blogfather” so beloved. But I admit, it kind of chafes that, off the top of my head, I can think of a handful of prominent men in the science-related sphere alone who have behaved just as inappropriately, if not more so, toward women and have paid zero consequences – because the protective herd instinct kicks in, or because they are better liars, or because the women they target just can’t bring themselves to risk naming them publicly.

There has been much denouncing this past week of “trial by Twitter,” and while it’s better to wait to get one’s facts straight before expressing outrage en masse (or defending the indefensible), the reason women resort to public “naming and shaming” in the first place is because the situation has become intolerable and this is the only way they feel they can be heard. Perhaps it would help if there were more than two possible outcomes: remaining silent, or the “nuclear option,” which the science blogging community experienced last week. Kelly Hills weighed in with a couple of thoughtful posts offering a possible way forward, but reiterated that "power and authority must be removed when a harasser is identified." And the Guardian offered four useful tips to "avoid becoming a leading sex pest."

It's a start. Can we have accountability without all this fallout? Can we call someone out for inappropriate behavior and still leave space for redemption and reform? I would like to think so, if only to make it easier for women to speak out. How many women have remained silent, guilt-tripped into doing so by people reminding them to think of the man’s family and his future? “You don’t want to ruin his career over something like this, do you?” we are told. And when you put it that way, no – we don’t. But it's interesting that nobody asks what this might do to our careers.

It’s time to stop asking women to pick up the tab for some men’s bad behavior. It really doesn’t have to be this way.

(P.S. I promise to get back to science now.)

(P.P.S. I was tempted to turn off comments on this post, but opted to instead moderate carefully. The first comment, which I hesitated to approve, is inflammatory -- and kinda Spammy, since the same comment has been left on other people's post on this issue -- but can nonetheless be useful for fostering discussion. See my own comments at #8 and #9. There is still much hurt and anger swirling about, and I ask people commenting to please respond to the substance, not the tone. Don't make shut down comments!)

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

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